hizbullah flag 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Hizbullah staged a massive military parade in southern Beirut on Friday as thousands of its guerillas marched in a show of force to counter international calls for the disarmament of Lebanese militias.
The groups' fiery leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, also backed Syria following a UN investigation that ties Lebanon's neighbor to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
As tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters cheered and applauded, more than 6,000 guerrillas in black, olive and green military uniforms and fatigues marched in formation through Hizbullah's south Beirut stronghold. None were seen to be carrying weapons.
The Shiite Muslim Hizbullah, which is supported by Iran, holds the parade every year to mark Jerusalem Day - which calls for the return of the city to Arabs.
But this year's parade came amid heightened tension in Lebanon following Western pressure on Syria to cooperate with a UN probe into Hariri's assassination in February.
It also followed a UN report that Lebanon has made little headway in implementing a resolution demanding the disarmament of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias disarm, including Hizbullah. That report also calls for Lebanese troops to deploy in southern Lebanon to end Hizbullah's armed presence there.
As part of an effort to prevent a larger regional crisis stemming from the UN investigation into the Hariri killing, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Syria briefly on Friday.
Although details were not released, Mubarak was thought to have talked to Syrian President Bashar Assad about efforts to impose sanctions on Syria if it fails to cooperate with the UN investigation, Egypt's Middle East News Agency said.
Hizbullah's show of force was also seen as a sign that the group may be trying to strengthen its role in Lebanon following April's withdrawal of Syrian troops following the Hariri killing. The guerrilla group is represented in Parliament and in the Cabinet.
Nasrallah lashed out at UN efforts to disarm his guerrillas and accused the international community of serving US and Israeli interests.
"Syria is being punished because it stood by Lebanon," the cleric told the rally. "And because it stood by the Palestinians."
He added that Hizbullah stood "on the side of Syria's leadership and people as it being targeted by American and Zionist attempts to punish it."
Although the Lebanese government condoned Hizbullah's display, it has been playing tough with pro-Syrian Palestinian militants in recent days. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora did not attend the rally.
Hundreds of Lebanese troops have in recent days surrounded bases near the Syrian border that belong to the pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and Fatah Uprising groups.
The government on Friday indicated that it wished to avoid a military confrontation and troops allowed villagers to supply the bases with food.
"The army's weapons will not be used in the interior against anyone," Defense Minister Elias Murr told reporters after a meeting of military and security officials.